Rosebud Ben-Oni with Tara Betts

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Tara Betts
Rosebud Ben-Oni with Tara Betts (photo credit: Tony Smith)

I first met Tara Betts at poet Becca Klaver’s WHAT’S SO HOT: A Summer Salon Reading Series in 2012 in which we both shared new work in the very intimate and relaxed setting of Becca’s living room. Afterwards, Tara and I briefly chatted on the train home together, and we promised we’d keep in touch— and we did. I absolutely love teaching Tara Betts poems, especially the phenomenal poem “Switch“, in workshops (See Betts read her recent work “The Suits of Your Skins” at #BlackPoetsSpeakOut Chicago.) Her newest collection, Break the Habit, is now out from Trio House Press (2016), and contains journeys in which, in Betts’s words, “we are always colliding with what we cannot control.” In the conversation, I speak to Betts on collisions, spiders, and what it means to “break the habit.”

 

ROSEBUD BEN-ONI: The first section seems to challenge the reader’s certainty of orientation in “Welcome to the Terrordome” (“I shook my head and silently/asked how much of the story is missing,/how I wouldn’t even know about the bullet/dropping Newton, if Chuck hadn’t told me”). We also witness the speaker discovering her own way in “Unsteady Directions” (“If parents are shields, hold nothing. If parents fail/ or blame, find a fortress to release whatever wounds.”) as well trying to find both cerebral and spiritual footing while “[u]nderneath, a house’s foundation/ gradually crumbles. The water may be poisoned/beyond redemption. It runs, wears away rock,/cuts down soil, carries wet in small measures,” as explored in “Prophetic Fragments.” Can you speak more about the idea of “collisions” in this section?

TARA BETTS: It may seem odd, but I think most poetry is about collisions and contradictions and how we find spaces between those parts of us that encounter different degrees of impact and moments of incongruity. “Unsteady Directions” is written to a you more so than the speaker finding her own way. I think it draws on some personal experiences, but unfortunately, I think it is a poem that I needed to write that addressed consent (and the lack thereof) that concerns women. In “Prophetic Fragments” — I think that poem is addressing that the old traditional ways of thinking generalizing about people of color and politically left people will eventually become increasingly obsolete because the absurdity of the politics. I do think that means that even people who describe themselves as radical, “woke,” “down,” conscious, or whatever left-leaning term of the moment strikes, will have to re-think those terms. A revolution is a circle, if we really think about the word, but does that mean we’re also in cycles of re-invention? I tend to think so. As far as “Welcome to the Terrordome,” I wanted the first poem to set an elegiac tone because Break the Habit really discusses different types of loss. When I look at black history, I find that some of the losses have been what I have not learned. How has something been kept from me? I have thought about that question a lot, and I think about when I was younger and how hip hop gave me an education. This Public Enemy song taught me an important lesson when they mentioned names like Joanne Chesimard and Huey Newton. We are always colliding with what we cannot control.

RB: One of my favorite poems in the second section was “Ink on the Sheets,” which ends with “It is a harbinger of words waiting, it is/ a reminder of you with words only,/ on a bed frame, springs, and cotton.” I found this to be a very candid, sensual poem in that the speaker reclaims private, communal space (the bed) by “[f]orgetting to click the cap over a pen’s tip.” A retaking of the page via (re)marking of meditative territory. How does this poem then speak to other poems in the section?

TB: One of my habits since youth has been reading and writing in bed. I’ve bought desks, written in coffee shops and at kitchen tables, but the bed has been a literary refuge. It’s comforting and intimate, and writing can possess both of those qualities too. In fact, I think the poem is talking about how writing and the bed can be a sort of solace in the absence of intimacy with another person.

RB: There’s a powerful bond between spiders and women in the last section such as “Dragline” (“She is not the first woman to lose canvas/or poem that came freely”); “A Season of No” (“I cannot help thinking that spider warned me.”); and “Spider Dream” (“These sisters cannot speak, but build/ unseen barricades in her waking world.”) How do spiders play a role in the speaker’s desire to “break the habit?”

TB: Habit is an established routine, but a habit is also something that can be consciously created. As I was writing and researching entomology books that explained spider behavior, I found that I was drawing myself into a sort of kinship with spiders, like spirit animals. I definitely thought about Arachne and Anansi. I thought of Angela Jackson’s Dark Legs and Silk Kisses and Lucille Clifton’s The Terrible Stories, but one thing that I found compelling was how actual spiders kept appearing as I was drawing the manuscript to a close. In my research, I found that the Druids believed that if you kept having encounters with spiders, then you have a creative project to complete, particularly if it is a writing-related project. I took that as my cue, when I had a spider that was deeply entrenched on my front porch for about four or five months, and I kept thinking of the fox that would visit Ms. Clifton’s porch. The spiders seemed to be a harbinger that there would be a dramatic change in where the writing would conclude.

RB: What was the most difficult poem in the collection to write?

TB: Honestly, I didn’t feel like these poems were not difficult. I don’t think poems have come so easily to me, but this book was written much more quickly and came together more easily than I imagined. I would say that the hardest poems to write emotionally were “Dear Moon” and “Arribada,” and oddly enough, no one has asked about those poems.

RB: Who are you reading now? What poets and authors inspire you?

TB: Right now, I’m reading different things for the various things that I’ve been writing, so it’s less poetry. I was reading Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, but I’ve also been reading this collection of essays by women entitled Wave Form: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. I have a long queue of fiction and nonfiction books that I’m reading this summer, but I’m also planning to catch up on some poetry this summer—Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Khadijah Queen, francine j. harris, Morgan Parker. The poets who really inspired some of my writing in Break the Habit include Lucille Clifton, Denise Duhamel, and Sharon Olds, but I also feel that the narrative turns have been trying to zone in on the voice that I hear in my head when I tune everyone else out. Other poets can be touchstones, but I am also trying not to lean too hard on inspiration to forge ahead.

RB: What’s next for you, Tara?

TB: Isn’t that always the question looming like the next sunrise? My next publications include a forthcoming chapbook on dancing girl press entitled Never Been Lois Lane and the coedited volume that I worked on entitled The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the Twenty-First Century (2Leaf Press, 2017). I’m spending part of this summer studying modernist writers in Chicago at the Newberry Library this summer, and I’m working on a third poetry collection. I have some essays that I’m working on, but I have a few other ideas that are percolating.


Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit (Trio House Press, 2016) and Arc & Hue (Willow Books, 2009). Her work has appeared in POETRY, American Poetry Review, Essence, NYLON, and numerous anthologies. Tara is also one of the co-editors of The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century (2Leaf Press, 2017). Tara holds a Ph.D. in English from Binghamton University and a MFA in Creative Writing from New England College. She teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago.

Rosebud Ben-Oni is a 2014 New York Foundation Fellow for the Arts (NYFA) in poetry, a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013). Her work appears in The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. In Fall 2014, she will be a visiting writer at the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Writers Live Series. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org

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